Mommyblogging and the water well

As I mentioned back in February, closing comments for Lent gave me a lot of insight into the role that the internet plays in my life. I didn’t want to get into too many details in that post since I knew it would lend itself to discussion, so here is the promised Part II.

Back in college I spent a couple of semesters as an anthropology major. I found the study of different peoples and cultures fascinating, and drank up all the material in the courses. One thing that always jumped out to me was that in almost every group of people we studied across time and place, one thing they all had in common were clear, cohesive communities: whether we were studying the ancient peoples of the Fertile Crescent or villages of medieval Europe or modern-day tribes in the jungles of South America or even early 20th century American neighborhoods, one thing almost all these peoples had in common was that they lived around people they knew — the same people, including all their family members — for their whole lives.

I think often about how different modern American life is, particularly for those of us outside of the workforce. Many of us experience the historically new phenomenon of living around strangers: we don’t know many of our neighbors, don’t run into people we know at the grocery store or the post office, don’t live close to immediate (or even extended) family members, etc. If we feel part of any kind of close community at all (e.g. a church group), it is often not people who live close to us, whom we run into casually. As I mentioned in my previous post on the subject, other than planned, scheduled meetups, I could probably go a couple of weeks (or maybe months) without running into anyone I know in the course of daily life.

I’ve talked a lot about this phenomenon with friends who are immigrants from places where cohesive communities still exist (e.g. rural France, Mexico, India) and have come up with a lot of thoughts on the subject. And, hey, why have a blog if you can’t write up this sort of stuff and tell the internet about it? So, for your reading pleasure, here is my little theory about social interaction and modern life, based on extensive studies and research (read: I thought about it while washing dishes):

I feel like I need four different types of social interaction (broadly defined) on a regular basis. In order of importance, they are:

  1. Quality interaction with others — forming new friendships and strengthening existing relationships with friends and family members

  2. Casual interactions with people I know where my expected participation level is flexible
  3. An awareness of the events and concerns of my community as a whole
  4. Simply running into people I know in the course of daily activity, even if we don’t have much direct interaction

I feel like regularly having opportunities for each of these types of social activity is ideal for my psychological wellbeing; and, looking at human history, it would seem that we’re designed to have these things as natural parts of our lives. Yet here in my part of suburbia, I only have #1 (and even that is with great effort). So what am I to do about #2-4?

I remember back in those anthropology classes, I noticed that a common community setup was that there would be a central area where people, especially women, would gather as part of their daily work, e.g. a tribe might have one community fire pit for cooking, or there would be one spot on the river where the women would all gather to do the washing. In particular, one visual that stuck with me was that of the village water well: in some long-forgotten textbook I read the description of a tribal village that had one central well where the women would go to get the family’s water. There was some sort of central oven nearby, and this area, of course, became a bustling hub of social activity.

By virtue of having the community water well area, women didn’t have to separate their lives into “work time” and “socializing time” in order to get needs #2-4 met. Socializing would be interwoven into their daily tasks, rather than something that had to be sought as an entirely separate endeavor. I’ve often imagined how helpful this must have been: when you arrived at the well, you could listen to the conversations and jump in if you were feeling talkative, or hang back and mostly listen if you were feeling tired or reserved. Unlike the carefully-orchestrated playdates of today, casual interaction could be just that: casual. You had an opportunity for social interaction, to hear what others in your community were talking about, without an obligation to be “on” if you weren’t feeling up to it. Ever since I read about that village well I’ve often wished that we had something similar today, a community gathering place that would meet our desire for casual interactions, to fill needs #2-4 in my list above.

This, I believe, is where the internet can be a great thing.

In the past few years since the explosion of blogs, I’ve come to feel like my laptop is my village well. In between loading the dishwasher and vacuuming the living room, I can stop by the well and see what folks are buzzing about. Simcha’s children are seeing if they can sustain life on Easter candy alone, Ann is finding beauty and deep symbolism in an ordinary task, BooMama is having technical problems like mine, Abigail shares a lesson she learned about parenting, Danielle Bean reflects on being a mom and an introvert, Veronica Mitchell is undoubtedly vowing to never mention Esperanto again (ever), and Maggie’s son still won’t take naps.

In a five-minute scan of some of the blogs I read, I can get a quick pulse for what’s going on with women who have similar values and lives to mine. It’s wonderfully unpredictable: sometimes I might be challenged intellectually, other times I might be moved to tears, and other times I might laugh out loud. I see the familiar names in the comments at other blogs, often people whose blogs I follow as well. I can join in the conversation by leaving a comment, or just sit back and listen. In addition to following others’ stories, I can start a conversation of my own by writing a post for my own blog and inviting comments, or I could just check email to see what friends and family have to say today.

This is, ultimately, what I was getting at in my last post on the subject: for a lot of us, I think the internet is the closest thing we have to the community water well. It’s not necessarily a good place to try to form deep friendships, but it is a place where we can quickly, casually throw out the question “You ever have days like this?” in the midst of our daily work; a place where we can just listen to what’s going on with other people we “know” when we’re feeling too tired to make conversation ourselves; a way we can feel like we have a pulse on what’s going on in a larger community throughout each day.

To be sure, I don’t think it’s a replacement for real-life friendships, and I don’t think that virtual communication can or should ever replace fostering quality friendships with people whom you see in person. It’s not even a perfect replacement for a thriving community center. But, when you have three kids in diapers and you’re the only person on your suburban street who’s home during the day and you never see anyone you know at the grocery store, there are some days when it’s all you’ve got in terms of opportunities for casual chitchat with other adults. And on those days you feel really, really blessed to have your own little water well sitting on your kitchen counter.

So those are my little musings on the subject…what do you think?

UPDATE: A part II to this post is here.

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Enter the Conversation...

60 Responses to “Mommyblogging and the water well”
  1. Donna says:

    Hi Jennifer- let me tell you I LOVE LOVE LOVE your blog and have been talking about this very topic all Easter weekend. I am an only child and have no family in town. I live on a hilly street with no sidewalks. Our church is 15 minutes away, I never run into anybody running errands. I absolutely rely on my blog-stalking to fill that need for kinship with likeminded women on a daily basis. However- we have recently talked about moving to either a planned community or older community to have a place with sidewalks, parks and community all in walking distance.

  2. Patience says:

    What I think is that your weblog has opened windows in my heart and old dusty rooms in my mind, and for that I have been waiting through Lent to thank you.

    I don’t like much going to the well in real life, I am an introvert, so the internet is a wonderful blessing of community for me. Especially when I get to meet people like you.

  3. Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) says:

    What do I think? Simply, Amen!

    Several times in the last few months I’ve found myself describing my contentment at home in connection to having a blog and that connection to the outside world.

    I’m actually one of those people who like the internet (concept/functionality) better than a village well, because it happens (forgive me) on *my* time-table.

    There’s always something happening at the well…

    (Of course, when there’s not, well, I take that as a cue that I’ve been “drinking” too much and need to turn back to the Word for my thirst for connection.

    I suppose that’s part of a different discussion, though.)

  4. Thia says:

    Bingo. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I know I had some feedback after the other post, but I can’t remember them now. Maybe after I’ve had some caffienne!
    It will be interesting after we move (this month) b/c our social circles will be changing. I might have to post on this a bit after seeing what happens.

  5. Marian says:

    Amen. I ponder and struggle with this aspect of modern life all the time!

    As far as social interaction being woven into everyday life in earlier times, I often think the same thing has been lost for most of us with exercise! How ridiculous that most of us, if we’re to get any significant exercise at all (and sometimes it’s nearly impossible), must GO exercise. Many modern folk must use all of the time “saved” by all of our labor-saving devices to go do some “labor” for their cardiovascular health at the gym! (Time to and from a gym, plus changing time: say, 45 minutes. Workout time: 1 hour. Which leaves you down 1:45, with still a shower to go.)

    And then these tech. devices (cell phones, lap tops, answering machines) that help us ” saty connected”… They do, as in internet blogs. And yet they also drive us apart, especially from those in our real world. They connect us to those we WANT to connect to, and shut out anyone else in the vicinity. Interesting changes in our world, that’s for sure.

  6. ashleyrae says:

    Even though I don’t stay at home with kids (don’t have them yet) and I see people at work all day long, I am drawn to the online village well too. My heart lies in the path of motherhood. I visit the village well to surround myself with those who are mothers as a sort of preparation. I don’t have a lot of want-to-be-a-mom-and-quit-my-job companions in my job community. In fact, you could say my views stick out a little funny from everyone else’s views. So, the online village well is a place for me to find others with like minds.

  7. Margaret in Minnesota says:

    I think you’re right on the mark, my friend. In fact, I am over here getting this link so that I can post a response on my blog. Another woman at the well nodding in agreement!

  8. Meredith says:

    This post is like a breath of fresh air. Thank you!

  9. Ouiz says:

    Exactly!

    I do have the privilege of having a few close friends that I can share with, but often it’s with the online community that I get most of my “Catholic interaction.” While I have to make sure that my family comes first (always!), I need that reaching out… that interaction… with other moms out there to be inspired, challenged, and to know that I’m not alone.

    My family moved 10 times during my childhood, and so when I went to college, I decided to STAY PUT and establish that sort of community I was craving. Because I’ve been in the same place for over 22 years now, I do have a bit more of the interaction you listed in #2-#4. It is such a blessing to go into stores and see the same people… the same cashiers… the same people jogging on the side of the road as we drive to Mass (the kids always shout “there go our joggers!”)

    My husband could make a whole lot more money if he were to get a job in a bigger city; however, we thought that “community” was much more important, so we’re staying put — in our same house, same neighborhood, with the same group of people.

  10. Chantal says:

    Jen I found your blog at the start of Lent and I love reading it. I would read each post and it drove me nuts not to be able to comment, and now of course I can’t remember what it was I wanted to say. Except that I enjoy reading your writing very much. That it inspires me to think about things in a way I never have before. It is getting me to think about my faith (something I have neglected for many years) and my family in different ways. I appreciate your work and I look forward to reading each post. Thank You.

  11. Melanie B says:

    Jen,

    I think it’s a great analogy.

    On a slightly tangential note: It’s funny that my dating relationship with my husband began with a #4 type encounter, running into each other at the grocery store. At the time he was a casual acquaintance, I knew him from church and he was chummy with my roommate. After seeing each other in the store, he was inspired to ask me out.

  12. Carrie J says:

    Love your blog. I have a small group of friends (4) that I interact with at our homeschool group. I have no family in the area. We have lived in the same neighborhood for 20 years. Those we knew well here have in the past few years moved or died.
    My children are growing up so I no longer have interaction with their friend’s parents. We left a church we had been part of for many years and were shunned by the members. Something I didn’t expect. My world has decreased in size over the past few years.
    I am by nature an introvert but it became a problem for me until I met my group of eccentric homeschool friends AND started reading blogs. I started my own blog and now I feel like I have a small community here.
    I love your analogy of the well. I get my cup of coffee and read every morning before I start my day. I feel like I used to when I was a kid and we would go to the laundry mat. I would play with the kids and my mom would talk and laugh with other women while they did laundry.
    Unfortunately the anonymous nature of the internet gives shelter to some of the mentally ill individuals. In real life we would have less problem identifying them.
    Good or bad, this is the reality of our day.

  13. maggie says:

    Another great thing about the internet is that there’s always someone who can beautifully articulate that strange yet powerful love you have for something that all of your real life friends think is weird. How many times have I tried to describe the awesomeness that is internet community and FAILED MISERABLY! Now I’ll just direct them here.

  14. Kacie says:

    Hi there! Just found your blog, and I thought I’d jump in.

    Your Part 1 and 2 posts made me realize how little human interaction I have anymore.

    I don’t yet have children, but I work from home and tend to be a homebody (along with my husband).

    We’re new to our city, and don’t have friends here. It’s kind of sad actually–I should make a better effort to get to know people, but we’re planning on moving to another city in a few months, so I don’t know.

    You’ve inspired me to try to put myself out there more with real, live human interaction! Thank you!

  15. Ashley says:

    How interesting, the other day I came across an article (…okay, actually, my husband did and showed me…he thinks I’m too internet obsessed, truth be told!) about internet addiction –

    “Recent studies are surprising, indicating the problem is worst not among game-obsessed teens, but rather among middle-aged women who stay at home, constantly on the computer as a way of connecting to the outside world.”

    http://tech.yahoo.com/blogs/null/87251

    I am SOOO community centered and not having lots of friends and community around me is hard sometimes. The internet can make it easier…but I’m not convinced that’s so great…

  16. 'Becca says:

    I had written a long comment about living in a cohesive community and how great it is, and then my browser crashed! My point was, real places still exist in the United States, so you can live in one if you’re willing to balance it with your other priorities. The link behind my name is about how my child and I benefit from riding public transit, which among other things brings us into contact with other people.

    I grew up in a place similar to where you live (but with fewer scorpions), and I feel sorry for you. I think of suburbia as a place where no one can hear you scream.

    The Internet is a great resource for connecting with people, but I think it can’t fully take the place of real face-to-face interaction. As Marian said:
    And yet they also drive us apart, especially from those in our real world. They connect us to those we WANT to connect to, and shut out anyone else in the vicinity.
    Does feeling like you live in a community of Catholic stay-at-home moms make you less motivated to meet your neighbors? Who would help you if your house caught fire?

    Do you ever think about how the time you spend on the computer affects your kids, differently from if you were talking with the same people sitting in your kitchen? As an employed-outside-the-home mom, I find it hard to picture mommybloggers and SAHMs who post regularly to discussion boards, because I so rarely get online from home; I “don’t have time” because I’m busy with my child and housework. I know your whole schedule is different from mine, and I don’t mean to criticize at all…but I was struck by how, in the typical day described in your first post, none of your meaningful interaction involved your kids. Do you ever feel that the Internet is distracting or distancing you from the kids, and if so, do you think it’s different from the effect of in-person socializing?

    Marian also made another good point:
    As far as social interaction being woven into everyday life in earlier times, I often think the same thing has been lost for most of us with exercise!
    I totally agree! This is another reason we insist on living in a walkable urban neighborhood. Around the block from our house is a mile-long shopping street, with sidewalks and stores whose windows you can see into. We can (and do) walk to the bank, post office, library, supermarket, drugstore, our church, and two playgrounds. It’s exercise, and it connects us to our community in a way that driving doesn’t.

  17. Abigail says:

    Well, this is interesting! The Mom of 12, (who I just posted about on my blog) said that her favorite story was the woman who met Christ at the well. She explained that going to the well was a social activity for most women at the time. Yet this women, who had a stigma from having 5 plus husbands, had to go when she would be all alone at the middle of the day. Yet there was Christ waiting for her, tell her that he would give her “living water.’

    Yes, the current culture is downright hostile to stay-at-home mothers. Christ is still waiting by the “well” for us in the year 2008. I give thanks for all the sips of “living water” that I’ve had from your blog and from many, many others.

    Keep writing!

  18. Danae says:

    Thank you for this analogy! As a stay at home mom with two little guys I often feel “alone” and ever since I discovered all of the amazing blogs out there, especially yours, I feel like I meet up with like-minded friends everyday. Thanks for the time you take to share thoughts and ideas!

  19. foursure says:

    About a year ago you said you didn’t like playgroups, but I would suggest that you give it another try. You’re at a different place than you were then, you’ve added two small children. If you can find something like that through your parish church, you may foster good casual friendships and create a “real life” well to visit once a week or so.
    The more faces you get to know, the more likely you’ll see them at mass, or the grocery store, or the doctors office.

    Blessings!

  20. Kimberly says:

    Glad your comments are back up!

    Internet is helpful esp. when you are “stuck” inside with a sick child or whatever.

    It is also helpful when people that are like you philosophically are spread around the country!

  21. Jennifer F. says:

    Becca -

    I was struck by how, in the typical day described in your first post, none of your meaningful interaction involved your kids.

    Sorry, I should have done a better job of clarifying that my focus was on *adult* interaction in that story, which for me is a separate need from interacting with my children. I cherish my time with my children — but since my oldest is three it’s not quite the same as talking to other adults. :)

    Do you ever feel that the Internet is distracting or distancing you from the kids, and if so, do you think it’s different from the effect of in-person socializing?

    I think that this is a key difference between the internet and in-person interactions, that my kids are more involved in the interaction when I am meeting with someone in person. So that’s a downside of online interactions.

    As for spending too much time online, I think that many of us SAHM’s have to keep a careful eye on not overusing whatever it is we use to mentally unwind and recharge our batteries — for some women that might be the internet, for others the television, for others perhaps phone calls, etc. I know that in my daily examination of conscience one of the things I always take a close look it is how much time I spent unwinding, surfing the web, etc. Luckily it’s hardly ever been a problem since my kids take long naps, so most of the time I spend online is during that time. But it’s definitely something to watch — staying at home with kids all day every day can be very challenging, that the temptation to overuse our breaks is always there (at least for me).

    Does feeling like you live in a community of Catholic stay-at-home moms make you less motivated to meet your neighbors? Who would help you if your house caught fire?

    Actually, the strength and support I find from my interaction with other women who are seeking to grow as Christians and as mothers probably makes me more likely to go out and meet my neighbors. And we are acquaintances with most of the people who live around us, but since they’re in totally difference places in their lives (most of them single, some other much older kids) we don’t really click that much.

    I’m so jealous that you live in a walkable urban neighborhood! I was trying to hook that up with our last move since we used to live downtown and it really helped me feel less isolated, but it didn’t work out due to some family circumstances.

    Thank you all for your comments!

  22. Ann Kroeker says:

    Came here by way of Meredith and enjoyed your comparison–that idea of casually dropping in, catching up on the latest happenings, engaging in the conversation (via comments) or hanging back and just listening in when one is feeling a little shy (lurking).

    In a world that’s video-driven, it’s also nice that many mom-blogs are story-driven. That, too, ties in with the village well idea, as women swap stories.

    Our virtual village is quite large, however, since it isn’t defined by geography.

    Interesting metaphor. I’ll be thinking about this all day. I’m glad I stopped at the well to fill up.

  23. Amber says:

    I think it is a great analogy and a great post. I think you’ve made a good point about the different kinds of interactions adults need in their daily life, and how hard that is to fulfill in the typical American world.

    When I used to live in a town that was far more suburb-ish than the one I currently live in I actually had a lot more of all four types of interactions. I would be out with my mom and she would be amazed at how often I would run into someone I knew, etc. I really made it a point when we moved there to join several different groups and between them all in the three years I was there, I felt like those things you listed were reasonably well fulfilled.

    Now that I live in a smaller town, I haven’t figured out how to achieve the same thing. The groups I joined there don’t exist up here so I am at a bit of a loss. I feel more alone in this town of 3000 than I did in a city of 75000!

    But this is somewhat besides the point that you were making in your post. :-) I find the biggest limitation of the internet as a social well is the lack of reciprocity. Perhaps it is just me, but I feel like while I get to at least somewhat know the people who’s blogs I read, they generally don’t ever get to know me. Reading blogs fulfills my need to have some contact with other people’s lives, but it doesn’t help my feelings of isolation, invisability, or wanting to be known. I know it isn’t this way for many people, but I’m not really sure how that happens. The whole dynamic of blogs and readers and commenting and blog growth is quite beyond me!

  24. Ann Kroeker says:

    You inspired me so much, I wrote an entire post about blogging metaphors and invited people to participate in an impromptu carnival.

    Thanks for the inspiration…you gave me much to think about.

  25. sarah says:

    you’ve described what i’ve been feeling for 4 years PERFECTLY. i read through several of my favorite blogs everyday just to feel “not alone” in the mommy world. it helps. but i still long for a “well”.

  26. Almost Catholic Momma says:

    Great blog post. I started blogging in January, wasn’t sure if it was for me, but have since discovered the great variety of blogs out there. I thought there had to be others out in the world wide web world like me. I don’t really discuss going through the Catholic conversion with my friends so being able to write about it and interact with others who know what I’m going through is like a breath of fresh air. Plus knowing there are so many mom’s in the blogging community is nice because now I know we all have a common bond in what we deal with on a daily basis.
    The internet village is nice, but it obviously doesn’t replace real friendships, which I cherish.
    I am a SAHM living in the country. I live outside a small town so when I go into town I sometimes run into people I know, but the kids and I are at home most of the time. My friends aren’t always available to gab on the phone all day (and neither am I). The internet is there when I have time. I can read blogs, leave comments, or write posts on my own time.
    My family always comes first, but having the connection to get online is fabulous. If I didn’t have the internet I’d be one crazy momma.

  27. Michele Quigley says:

    Well said my dear. I couldn’t agree more!

  28. Adoro te Devote says:

    Jen, I wrote a long Adoro-patented extensive post on this recently:

    http://adorotedevote.blogspot.com/2008/03/anonymousinvisiblemysteriousfriend.html

    I argue that these friendships are real; they can be. But I’m with you in that something is missing if we haven’t officially met face to face.

    I know someone who had an email friendship with someone for 10 years. They never met. I do believe they likely spoke on the phone, don’t remember that part. In any case, he heard from the other man’s wife when the man died; he’d left him a great treasure (scholarly). Something that only he could appreciate, and it was the thing that had brought them together – that important thing in common, which, just caused them to have this wonderful friendship.

    I woudl argue that although they never met, they were likely closer than most friends.

    But I would also argue that such a thing is not the norm.

    I love my blog buddies, and sincerely want to meet them (you’re on my list, young lady!) And I think this can happen, and then, those friendships will be solidified.

    But we have something special in the Catholic community of internet friendships; our faith. It binds us. A few years ago at a Catholic conference, I was speaking with a Methodist Pastor. She was amazed at the unity among perfect strangers. This conference came…and we were all automatically friends. People who came alone (like me) were talking to others as though it were just a small town with people who had known each other forever. But we had people from all the states…it was our faith that brought that unity and even friendship. The Pastor was amazed; that kind of unity doesn’t exist even in her own conference of clergy, never mind the congregations! (her observation)

    Anyway…you don’t need to read my post now… LOL!

  29. David Roberts says:

    man, that took a lot of scrolling to get down to the bottom. well, i wanted to say that (having entered the church back at easter vigil 2007) it’s really neat to read this blog. woo hoo! um…the other thing was that the unemployment rate in michigan is really really bad, so i’m not getting as much work as the funeral home as i’d like. so i get this concept of “the well.” which makes sense to me. that’s all i got.

  30. Ann Voskamp @Holy Experience says:

    I find this so, as C.S. Lewis wrote: “We read to know we are not alone.” In the reading of other blogs, we read our own stories, and know our personal journeys are similar to other mothers– our is not an anomaly.

    And yet, as I come to the village well, I wonder sometimes:

    ~ if I shared my stories in face-to-face interactions, how would they be received? Likely with less adulatory words. I think about that–and how it effects, perhaps negatively, the growth of my soul.

    ~ and sometimes I think Jesus calls us to come fill in Him –pour out our stories to Him, and quietly sit at His feet listening. Jesus calls us away from the village well, to sit alone with Him. How often do I brush Him aside and head to the cyberwell?

    I humbly agree: God does create communities of faith for our mutual edification. And I think the blogosphere definitely is used of Him to meet the needs of many seeking meaningful connection and encouragment — He has used the blogging community to that end for me, profoundly. Sometimes I quietly wonder, howeever, if, for me personally, one well is visited more than the Other Well?

    Perhaps a single daily visit to the village well for connection–and endless trips to the Living Well for soul quenching?

    Just quiet things I think about…
    Thank you, Jennifer, for the opportunity to share a bit at your very thoughtful well. You are appreciated…

    All’s grace,
    Ann

  31. Thia says:

    Someone mentioned playgroups in the comments and I wanted to go back to that for a minute. My experience with such things (limited, true), especially in the church, is that you end up stuck in mommy mode, talking about the kids, the home etc. On the internet, I can pursue the many different interests I have and have some good intellectual discussions. It’s nice to remember I am more than just a mom b/c someday they will grow and have lives. If I don’t remember my other interest, when this happens, I think I’d be lost.

  32. ashleyrae says:

    I just saw a movie last night that highlights the concept of online village well. It’s actually a Japanese film with English subtitles – Train Man. It’s very well done, and gets at the fact that online groups can be a support network and create friendships, but in the long run it’s the connections you make in the real world that matter most. It was thought provoking to watch the movie after reading this blog.

    ***
    Random sidenote: Jen, you mentioned a daily examination of conscience. Do you have anything on paper you go by, or do you just make it up yourself? Thanks!

  33. Jess says:

    I agree with your assessment of the internet and its appeal to me. I moved far away from my family and friends last year to a new part of the country and I have two small children. On most days the internet is the only place I can go to to communicate with people I “know”.

    In fact, with software like Sight Speed and Skype I can see and talk to my family on the east coast daily for free. Through blogs we stay abreast of each others lives. That is invaluable for my children to be able to talk to grandparents, aunt and uncle and cousin to keep the family bonds strong even though distance separates by thousands of miles.

  34. simplycatholic says:

    Thank you so much for your insightful post. I can’t tell you how many times I have felt saddened by the lack of community in modern America. You have expressed my own thoughts much better than I ever have.

  35. :: Suzanne :: says:

    I think you have nailed it. Well done.

  36. Jennifer F. says:

    Just now getting a chance to read through all the great new comments. Thank you!

    One quick response -

    Jen, you mentioned a daily examination of conscience. Do you have anything on paper you go by, or do you just make it up yourself?

    I loosely base it on the Ignatian Examen — I’d love to tell you that I devoutly follow every step of St. Ignatius’ examen prayer each night, but sometimes it’s more of a loose translation. :) I’m working on that though and hope to incorporate a more thorough, formal examination of conscience into my daily routine one of these days.

  37. Carrien says:

    I agree. I started blogging after we moved countries and found myself without friends and pregnant with a third child. Back then finding other women to talk to, even if they were only through my computer was so helpful to my emotional state.

    I’ve often considered many of the exact same things and thought how much it would be nice to be within a strong community for a long length of time.

    But then I was dying to leave the small community that I grew up in. I completely bought every thing about the largely North American idea that you have to do something big and noticable and travel far in order to really be happy.

    Now I fantasize about how nice it would be to be Amish. :)

  38. Martha says:

    I know you are thinking of homeschooling, but I’ll mention this anyway in case it is interesting: I was really, really surprised, after a year of homeschooling my oldest, to see how sending him to school met a lot of social needs for me as well. (numbers 1-3). ;) Since I am an introvert, I did not expect the isolation of homeschooling to bother me — but it really did. At our little private school, however, I ended up having quality friendships, casual encounters, a larger community — really, all except the running into someone while at the store. It has been such a blessing to me and to the other moms there as well. I am sure it would be different if I did not live in a neighborhood with no homeschoolers. (I can think of one family within a 10 minute drive.) But, since there aren’t many around here, and I also have little family in the area — school has been my water well. I am so so pleased to see that it has. While I love checking mommy blogs, they didn’t help my extroverted son, and I tend to spend too much time reading them. Speaking of which – gotta go. Thanks for your post!

  39. Cecelia says:

    I used to have my family as my community along with work relationships and church…but then I decided to move across the country. It’s amazing how much I have come to rely on my laptop for my community. Be it reading blogs or chatting with family on Skype, I use the internet to stay connected. (Now I just need to create more relationships where I live now!)

  40. Anna says:

    Jen F.,

    I guess I think that an internet community is inherently inferior to a living community. But living communities are rare; we turn to internet communities because we can’t find anything else. (And an internet community IS a lot better than NO community).

    At the same time, I’m something of an idealist. I think that if living communities are the ideal, and we can’t find one, then we ought to make them. And internet communities can get in the way of this, by giving people enough community to get by, so that they feel less need to make community elsewhere.

    But I shouldn’t be talking… I do blog and comment all the time. *sigh*

    God bless.

  41. 'Becca says:

    Ashleyrae wrote:
    My heart lies in the path of motherhood. I visit the village well to surround myself with those who are mothers as a sort of preparation.

    I was there a few years ago. It was, and still is, extremely helpful to have a “village of mothers” to gather with, seeking advice and sharing experiences. I work with many people who happen not to have children and a few who are obnoxiously “childfree”, so it’s great to have a way of spending my lunch hour socializing with moms.

    Jennifer wrote:
    As for spending too much time online, I think that many of us SAHM’s have to keep a careful eye on not overusing whatever it is we use to mentally unwind and recharge our batteries — for some women that might be the internet, for others the television, for others perhaps phone calls, etc. I know that in my daily examination of conscience one of the things I always take a close look it is how much time I spent unwinding, surfing the web, etc. Luckily it’s hardly ever been a problem since my kids take long naps, so most of the time I spend online is during that time. But it’s definitely something to watch — staying at home with kids all day every day can be very challenging, that the temptation to overuse our breaks is always there (at least for me).

    Thanks for reminding me of this. Although, as I said, I rarely get online at home, I do have ways of unwinding both with my child and alone, and it IS tempting to overuse them–in my case, not because I’m with the kid all day but because I’ve been busy working, commuting, and doing the zillion necessary daily tasks. Sometimes I wind up literally staying up late to relax, which just doesn’t make sense!

    Actually, the strength and support I find from my interaction with other women who are seeking to grow as Christians and as mothers probably makes me more likely to go out and meet my neighbors.

    That’s great! Internet communities are at their best when they inspire us to be better and friendlier people both online and off, and at their worst when they inspire us to huddle online and fret about how the whole outside world is against us, IMO.

    Ann Voskamp wrote:
    if I shared my stories in face-to-face interactions, how would they be received? Likely with less adulatory words.

    Good point! It can be so comforting to “talk” in a “place” where everyone understands my worldview, but that can tempt me into being lazy about explaining myself or doing what “people like me” do without examining whether it is right.

    Jesus calls us away from the village well, to sit alone with Him. How often do I brush Him aside and head to the cyberwell?

    Ouch. Also a good point!

  42. lp says:

    Well, I’m really late in jumping in on this discussion, but I just read the “Community, Association and Markets” post at DarwinCatholic, and something clicked.

    One of the things that had been nagging me about this discussion and others on similar topics that have come up recently is that people often mention finding like-minded friends. Now, I love having a friend or two who share and understand my values and lifestyle enough that I feel I can say just about anything without trying to explain or justify myself, because they’ll just get it. (And I’m quite an introvert, so one or two close friends is good enough for me!)

    However, I don’t think that finding “like-minded” people is the point of a community (as the Darwins explain it in their post), nor was it the function of the community well.

    The point of the well is that EVERYONE had to go there, out of necessity. So (picturing myself back in time), I might see my friends and relatives there, I might see other moms with young children with whom I could share stories and advice, but I’d also see teenagers, older people, people who do things I don’t approve of, people whom I’d like to get to know better, and some people that I just really dislike. Someone from the most prestigious family would be there, along with someone from the most despised family. And we’d all be forced to interact, because we all NEED the water. There’s no opting out.

    There are two effects of this. First, it underscores the fact that we are all creatures who need water, and forces us to recognize a commonality with even someone who is otherwise utterly unlike us.

    Second, it carves out a small niche for each person in the community. We can all see where we’ve been (the kids) and where we’re going (the older people), and that would have to give some sense of how our current stage of life (whatever it is) is important and contributing to the community. Plus, we’d be forced (for the good of the community) to learn to interact at least politely with people we can’t stand.

    This is something the internet cannot quite replicate, because we can always opt out. If I read a blog post we don’t agree with, I can choose to debate the point . . . or I can leave a mean-spirited comment . . . or I can just never read that blog again. In any case, it’s up to ME. There’s no RISK involved, because I’m relatively anonymous, and there’s no incentive for me to cultivate relationships with people I don’t like.

    In a family, siblings are forced to interact even if they can’t stand each other, and husbands are wives are forced to figure out solutions when they disagree about serious issues (ideally they are, anyway!). It’s nice to have an understanding friend to vent to, but I’d argue that it’s the relationships that we can’t opt out of that really help us grow. (I have some friends with whom I was incredibly close at one point in my life, but we’ve since “grown apart.”)

    If the family is taken as the basic building block of society, then it seems that the concept of “community” should reflect this aspect. There should be risk involved. At the community well, people were forced to interact, not because of common interest, but because of common necessity. This really can’t be true of the internet, because it’s always (even at its best), a luxury, a diversion–not a necessity.

    Nor am I sure that there is a way to recreate this necessity consistently in our current (relatively) wealthy society. The neighborhood feel that I hear my own parents talk about nostalgically was not created because a bunch of people got together and decided to be a community–it was created because (in my family’s case, anyway), the people were first or second generation immigrants who lived where they could find work and couldn’t afford to move anywhere else. They were there by necessity, and their houses were small and jammed together because they couldn’t afford a bigger house with more land. (And, as the Darwins point out, many of them and their children were more than happy leave the old neighborhood for bigger and better things when they were able.)

    But anyway, it takes more than a playgroup or even a planned community to bring the aspect of necessity. Maybe we should all just be grateful that we aren’t bound by such necessity! And yet, your series of posts on this have really resonated with me, and I find myself wishing for the same things that you and all the wonderful commenters have discussed.

    Okay, this is quite a rambler, and I apologize! I really enjoy your blog and read almost every day, although I rarely comment. If I’ve broken all sorts of blogging etiquette with the length of this, I’m sorry. Thanks for a great blog!

  43. lp says:

    Just wanted to add that there’s a brief but fascinating discussion of neighborhood communities and their effect on health in chapter 1 of Mimi Guarneri’s book “The Heart Speaks.”

    Okay, enough from me, I promise!!

  44. Jennifer F. says:

    lp – no worries about the long comment! I think it’s great and I think you bring up something really important:

    However, I don’t think that finding “like-minded” people is the point of a community (as the Darwins explain it in their post), nor was it the function of the community well…The point of the well is that EVERYONE had to go there, out of necessity. So (picturing myself back in time), I might see my friends and relatives there, I might see other moms with young children with whom I could share stories and advice, but I’d also see teenagers, older people, people who do things I don’t approve of, people whom I’d like to get to know better, and some people that I just really dislike. Someone from the most prestigious family would be there, along with someone from the most despised family. And we’d all be forced to interact, because we all NEED the water. There’s no opting out.

    I’m so glad you brought this up, because I think that we need to separate two terms when talking about what defines community and makes it work: interests and values. Per your point, a true, old-style community is not a group of people who have the same interests. In fact, one of the main benefits, as you point out, is that you’re forced to interact with people who have totally different interests and are at totally different places in their lives than you are. So often these days when people seek to build communities, whether it’s online or in person, they try to build it around people w/ the same interests, and thus they lose many of the aspects of true community.

    However, I do think that a necessary building block of a community that will remain cohesive and work is that the people have the same basic values. Check out SteveG’s comment from 3/31/08 1:10pm to this post. To be clear, I think diversity is a wonderful thing and one of my great pleasures in life is getting to know people from completely different backgrounds and cultures…however, in terms of building communities, I think that it’s essential that the people have some basic values in common (e.g. religious beliefs, views on what the meaning of life is), otherwise it’s not worth it to people to make the sacrifices necessary to keep the community together. Studies seem to show (and intuition would confirm) that shared core values are the glue that keeps communities together.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment!

  45. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    I love what you have to say, as usual (I am sounding so sycophantic, but I cannot help it!). Now I’m sort of waiting for you to tie it all in to that story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well…

  46. lp says:

    As I’ve thought about communities, three things keep coming up:

    Values and Shared Experience
    First, I like your idea about members of a community needing to share core values to make the individual sacrifices necessary for the good of the community seem worth it to the members. However, although common interests (eg, a book club or knitting club) or common values (ie, a church fellowship group)–or even common location (eg, a neighborhood)–are generally the starting points for the creation of a community, I would argue that none of these guarantees that a community will flourish.

    In my experience, the one thing that gives a group of people a community “feel” is shared experience. So although people might initially come together to share a hobby, or come together to promote and share their values, or just buy houses on the same street, they don’t really feel like a cohesive group until they can say, “Hey, remember that time when . . .” It is this shared experience, and resulting collective memory, that make a group of people into a community.

    When I first thought about this, shared experience seemed like a trivial matter. Okay, so I have a few drinks and a few laughs with a group of people, and suddenly we’re a cohesive community? But the more I think about it, the more fundamental I think it is. It is shared experience, even if we each respond differenly to the experience itself, that forces us to empathize with others simply because they, like us, are human. This might be part of why, in many cultures, sharing a meal is so important. We all need to eat, we could just tell each other about the foods that we like to eat, but it is the actual act of eating together, and responding to the food together, that bonds us.

    So how do people come to have enough shared experiences together to create a collective memory? A lot of this has to do with the rituals of life. When we first moved to our current house (4 years ago), I felt like a complete strange shopping at the grocery store (you mentioned this in one of your posts), because even after I had figured out the layout and where all the necessary items were located, I was completely anonymous as I went through the aisles. However, after 4 years of shopping at the same store, I’ve had enough shared experiences with the cashiers and other shoppers that I no longer feel like a stranger. When I go through the check-out, the regular cashiers comment on how big the kids are getting, or how the baby always falls asleep in the shopping cart, and I no longer feel anonymous. And I notice when they’ve gotten a haircut, or ask if they’ve been on vacation if they look tan. When I’m at my kids’ preschool or at church or in the post office someone occasionally makes small talk by saying, “Hey, I think I saw you in the Acme yesterday–we usually do our food shopping on Mondays, too!” . . . or whatever. Of course, it’s quite superficial, it’s just small talk, but it’s also just enough to make us all feel a bit connected, regardless of our values. We might have nothing in common other than the fact that we’re usually in the grocery store on Monday morning.

    In a similar vein, why do so many people turn to work colleagues as a social network? I’d say it’s because they have so many shared experiences. They might not be the same religion, or have the same political views, or even have a love for the work they do or the company they work for, but they all just sat through that ridiculously long meeting where so-and-so fell asleep right at the conference table and started snoring loudly . . .

    The problem, of course, is that it takes a long time to participate in a “ritual” long enough for a collective memory to develop. I think this is a problem that we often run into by trying to “create” a community. If you join an already flourishing community (eg, a street where everyone knows each other or an active group at church), you get a shortcut into the collective memory. People will tell you, “Oh, you should have been here the time when . . .” or “Hey, do you see so-and-so over there? Well, at the block party last year he . . .” But when we try to create a community from scratch, I think we too easily get discouraged. I’ve joined start-up playgroups that consisted of several moms with kids about the same age as mine, and, as many of your commenters have noted, they felt forced and artificial. Why? We all had something in common (the experiences of having children of the same ages), and we all had similar family values, at least. But all of our initial conversations were never-ending exposition, and most of the times the groups drifted apart before we’d had enough common experiences to develop a collective memory and, therefore, sense of community.

    This seems to be an innate problem of internet communities, in that they are by necessity telling, not experiencing. Even in trying to build communities in our neighborhoods, or churches, or wherever, I wonder if part of the problem is that in our fast-paced culture, we’re just not patient enough to let a community develop.

    Sense of Place
    This is something that I think has been lost by a lot of our culture, the idea of a sense of place. By this I mean the belief that not only do people uniquely affect the place where they live, but that the location uniquely affects the people living there. I’m thinking of how Victor Hugo writes about Paris in Les Miserables, or how Giovanni Guareschi writes about the Po river valley in the Don Camillo books, or how the villagers in Fiddler on the Roof believe that not only have they built their village with their own sweat and tears, but that God purposely placed them in that particular corner of the world. (Someone–Tevye, maybe?–has a line to this effect.)

    In our culture, however, we seem to have the idea that communities are transferrable–that the closeness we felt among the people in a particular neighborhood should be recreatable anywhere, in any neighborhood. We don’t often recognize that it’s the history of a place that gives it character–the fact that it was built by Polish immigrants, or that there’s a strong Amish presence in the region, or that the town grew up around a long-closed steel mill, or just that the mountains around the town lead to particularly cloudy winters.

    This gets to your and Steve G’s points about diversity and homogenization–thanks for directing me to that comment, by the way!–the article he linked to was fascinating. After reading the article, I think one of the “problems” with increased diversity is not that different cultrual or ethnic groups have different values–although they might–but that they have different rituals. So in a neighborhood that was settled predominantly by, say Italian Catholics (to draw on part of my own background), one of the rituals might be the baking of the traditional Easter bread at (you guessed it!) Easter time. In the parish where I grew up, all the Italian women made Easter bread, and fussed during Holy Week about how the loaves had turned out (They looked dry! They didn’t rise! I never put icing on mine before but I thought the kids might like it this year . . .); then after Easter everyone was exchanging loaves, and wherever you went to visit you were offered a slice. Our street had a lot of older Italian couples, so even families that weren’t Italian and had no idea how to bake Easter bread participated in this custom of eating it.

    This continued the history of the neighborhood, which 70 years before had been built by Italian immigrants who had been employed by the old-money families of the town. And, like my experience going to the grocery store, it provided a simple ritual through which people could share experiences.

    However, with increasing diversity at a fast pace, these customs are lost. On a street with families from many different ethnic groups that don’t know each others’ customs, these simple ways of breaking the ice are nonexistent–thus, perhaps, the malaise that seems to befall very diverse neighborhoods as discussed in the link Steve G provided. (Bear in mind, I have absolutely no background in sociology or anthropology aside from the stray needed-to-fulfill-graduation-requirements course in college!)

    Again, the development of traditions and customs takes time . . . and we often are not willing to wait. (At least I’m not–I want a community now, not in 10 years!) And I guess my point is that for a community to thrive, there has to be a ritual that is basic enough for everyone to participate in–regardless of their stage in life, or their interests, or even (to some extent) their values. So at the water well, the ritual of getting water was a necessity that everyone participated in . . . and it was very tied to place.

    Vertical Transmission of Culture
    And finally, this is something I’ve been thinking about ever since I read Hold On To Your Kids, which I discovered through your blog (and was, I believe, another Steve G recommendation). Obviously, the authors were writing from the angle of how peer orientation affects child development, but throughout the book I found myself hoping that some sociologist would take the topic and publish a detailed analysis from a cultural history angle. Anyway, in this context, I’d argue that a true community wants to perpetuate itself, and to do that it wants to pass its rituals and customs on to the next generation. In return, the younger generations seek to learn these customs from the older members, not only for the sake of the customs themselves but to learn how to interact with others in the community. (Clearly, the customs and traditions that a community holds dear reflect the values of the community. But I still think that someone can participate in rituals simply to connect with others without really understanding or sharing in the values.)

    But when I wish for more of a community feel in my neighborhood, I can’t say that I really consider this aspect. I can’t say that I’ve ever really sought out the older people in our development who are the original owners of their homes and asked them how them came to move here when the development was new, or how the neighborhood has changed in the last 35 years. Our parish has a very active senior citizens’ group but nothing similar for young couples or families . . . why hasn’t anyone thought to ask the seniors to occasionally open their monthly (always packed) luncheon to young families with kids? (Okay, now I’ve though of it. Perhaps I should do something about it!) It just seems that often we attempt to build communities in our own images (my ideal “community” would be a group of moms who understand what it’s like to be raising little boys who wrestle ALL. DAY. LONG!) without considering what communities already exist, and what we can learn from them.

    So I’m really not sure where this leaves those of us who long for communities, not just a couple of close friends. When an appreciable percentage of people are relocating, or “moving up” to a larger house every few years, or going away to school, or retiring to warmer climates or senior developments, it’s hard to develop communities outside of work or school. I’m not saying that any of these things is bad in itself, just that the overall effect of this transience is not favorable to communities. The internet can overcome some of these problems, especially because people can continue to communicate regardless of physical location. But it still doesn’t provide an opportunity for traditions that lead to shared experience.

  47. Melanie B says:

    I like what IP says about shared experience.

    in my old neighborhood we lived near a park where I would walk four or five days a week, first when I was pregnant and then after I’d had the baby. I got to know many of the other regulars, especially the dog walkers who are out every day rain or shine, cold or warm. There was a large group of people who all obviously knew one another, a community of dog walkers.

    At first I felt like an outsider, but once I got to the point where I recognized faces and said hello to the same people week after week, the park came to be an inviting place. If I missed for a couple of weeks because I was sick, the dog walkers would notice my absence and ask where I’d been. There were a couple of little old men in particular who always greeted me with a warm smile. They commented on my growing belly and then on my growing baby.

    I hadn’t thought about it, but that was a sort of community. A while back I returned to the park and saw one of my little old men again. He expressed regret that I’d moved away, astonishment at how big my daughter was and remarked on my obvious pregnancy. We had a shared past and therefore something to talk about. If we’d continued to live in that neighborhood he’d have watched my family grow and my kids growing up. After a time he’d have become an old fiend.

  48. Smockity Frocks says:

    I just found this post and couldn’t agree more! I live in a small town, so I almost always see someone I know when I run errands, but still the interaction is a Type 2 (from your list).

    Since we make so many life choices that are not mainstream (7 children, homeschooling…) it IS difficult to make a real connection with people who view us as odd.

    That’s why I love my bloggy buddies!

  49. Jolyn says:

    I’m sure you have comments emailed to you? Because I haven’t been reading you long enough to have read this post until you linked to it recently … FINALLY I have something to point people to when they question the whole “blogging” thing and what it’s all about, and “isn’t it weird when someone you don’t even know comments on your blog?”

    I happen to be a military spouse who moves quite frequently. The blogging community acting as the community well resonated with me at a deeper level because it became a real source of comfort for me during our latest move when I didn’t know anyone and I was too tired to do anything about it. It took me a while to catch on to the blogging phenomena as it exploded when we were overseas and did not have good internet connection … I admire your use of blogging in exploring so many worthwhile subjects. I personally have not felt up to that in the way I have been conducting mine — it’s not a well-read blog — but I have valued it as a creative outlet and I have greatly valued the blogging community where I still find myself surprised when I read about someone struggling with an issue that I thought was so original and isolating. Thank you for articulating on these subjects so well and inviting the rest of us into your thoughts.

  50. Marianne Thomas says:

    Hi Jennifer – I’m really enjoying reading your blog in bits and pieces when I have a few minutes.

    This post rings true for me,too. I’m at home with my three (always have been) and we live in a big “family friendly” neighborhood, one where I am one of a just a few at-home moms.

    Blogging does help ease that sense of isolation along with offering affirmation for my choice to be at-home rather than off in Corporate La-La-Land.

    Your conversion story humbles this cradle Catholic, btw. Thank you for challenging me.

  51. Chere says:

    Jen,

    My daughter, Jenny, referred me to your site and I’ve really enjoyed it. I remember those days with little ones–I have 5 grown children and live on a farm. Before blogging, the internet, and cell phones, I found myself often looking forward to “snail mail” (the only available mail at that time). I also voluteered anyplace they would also allow me to bring my children–you’d be surprised at the number of places you can find like this! I made a sort of routine for myself to visit the same stores when I drove to town (20 miles) for groceries, etc. That way I learned the names and faces of the store employees and they recognized me (the short lady with “all those kids”!) and remembered me. It helped make up for the long days when my husband was “in the field” for hours and not accessible for conversation (remember, no cell phones!). I love your blog and wish I’d have had something like it about 25 years ago–do you know of one for older moms/grandmas that is similar?

    Chere

  52. Charlotte says:

    Hi! Yes–I read this a few months ago & your words here are partly responsible for my re-entry into blogging and reading others' blogs after several months off. I linked to this on my first post after my hiatus. Not sure how I found you. I might have googled, "women, community, blogging" or something. It was through this post that I started reading your blog.

    Thanks for your work here. I appreciate your perspective and your heart for God.

    My thoughts & prayers are with you as you anticipate and experience the upcoming birth of your child.

  53. Lynne says:

    I’m glad you linked this as a follow up to the fb post. So basically fb was my well, too, except I became the town derelict who never left the well except when someone yelled “fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are burned.” It was too consuming…and too “virtual”. I think my season of isolation is by God’s design. Abandonment to Divine Providence has been a gift during the last year as I tried to come to terms with that. I’m not a cloistered nun, but it spoke right to my heart and helped me find peace.

  54. Robert H. says:

    This speaks so much to me, Jenn. As an immigrant from Mexico, the isolation problem becomes compounded not only by language barriers, but also cultural ones. A good effort is invested in overcoming the language barrier only to find out the differences in mentality between the two countries are big indeed. While this can be a very interesting phenomenon to explore, can also be very painful. And, as you depict, the layout of American suburbia doesn’t help much either.

    In a recent trip to Europe -my first one ever- I discovered how different things can be in other first world countries. Interaction with people is made much easier were almost everyone uses public transportation and gets around by walking, as opposed to live in individual home and car bubbles. I felt at home in places Ive never been before.

    But hey, there are many good things in America after all. “Seek good and avoid evil” and “Thy will be done” is just two of the many beautiful thoughts my Catholic faith has provided.

    Thanks for being You, Jenn.

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